The return of clubbing in 2021 brought a wave of jubilation for dance music fans and DJs. It meant we could reconnect with the dancefloors we love, let off some much-needed steam after seemingly endless months of lockdown, and support nightclubs and nightlife workers who were left to struggle by the pandemic.
On top of that, it was a chance to check out new DJs in the club context best-suited to falling for new favs. More DJs have taken up position as must-see selectors and scene-leading stars as dancefloors reopened in 2021, tearing up clubs with their technical skills, on-point track selection and thoughtful dedication to their craft. From the hard-grafters who have been put in the work for years and are getting due recognition to the innovators leading the nu skool, we’ve picked out our top 21 breakthrough DJs of the year 2021 below (in alphabetical order).
1 Bored Lord
The queen of the edit, Oakland-based artist Bored Lord has been enlightening crowds throughout the US for years with her versatile blend of pop classics, blissed-out hardcore, and hard breaks. 2021 saw her release EP ’The Last Illusion’ on Eris Drew and Octo Octa’s label T4T LUV NRG, a beautifully crafted record that opens with a solid No Doubt ‘Don’t Speak’ sample and walks the tightrope between breathtakingly emotional and tough, brazen beats. Lockdown saw us craving Bored Lord’s humorous, queer-positive, ecstatic approach to dance music - and since reopening this momentum hasn’t really let up, with bookings from LA to New York accompanying her productions becoming club-staples either side of the pond.
Launching her new party SOLID at Tola and then play Felix Hall's New Year’s Eve party at the Peckham venue will see Changsie close out a strong year on a high. With an interest in breaking the boundaries of contemporary club culture, Changsie makes each set as memorable as the last with a mixture of hip hop and dubstep incorporated into her techno selections. The Japanese DJ is renowned in Tokyo and is now establishing herself in the UK. After spending this year playing around the UK amid gigs back home and in Poland, she’s also supported the likes of Ross From Friends and continue her monthly residency on NTS Radio. N
[Photo: Jun Yokoyama]
3 Chloé Robinson
After rising up as a bass music star under the name Barely Legal last decade, Chloé Robinson has broken through all over again this year with a name change to go alongside her maturing sound. Bringing more of a house and techno focus to her sound, the Birmingham-hailing DJ has stepped it up a notch. 2021 was truly Robinson’s year: she's played alongside Four Tet, Jamie xx, The Chemical Brothers and b2b with Special Request for a firecracker set of shows, as well as impressing with mixes for Mary Anne Hobb’s BBC 6 show, Rinse FM, her own Kiss FM show and our In Session series. She also took a headfirst dive into production this year and now aims to ramp up the volume of releases on her own label, Pretty Weird. Barely Legal is gone, long live Chloé Robinson.
Cici introduced her debut music into sets this year and kept us dancing throughout summer. She contributed a remix to Colors in Waves’ ‘Ultraviolet’ EP in May then followed up with her first EP ‘Extraneous’ via Warehouse Music in July. The four-tracker teleports you to Ibiza with its classic beat and psychedelic sounds. Since the release of her EP timed around clublands reopening, Cici on tour playing a huge range of festivals and club nights across Dublin, London, Berlin, Milan and beyond, sharing her new sound with high energy performances. By establishing herself as not only a DJ but also a producer this year, we’re sure there is plenty more to come from Cici.
5 Dar Disku
Named after a 1970s Egyptian pop culture magazine which translates to 'home of the disco', independent record label and DJs Dar Disku represent a blend of Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian sounds. Having formed in 2019, the London-via-Bahrain duo, comprising Vish Mhatre and Mazen Almaskati, became a staple in the returning dancefloors of 2021 up and down the UK for anyone looking for an eclectic range of upbeat sounds. Every set is a journey that can take you from skippy dance rhythms to boisterous folk instrumentals. In July Dar Disku also performed alongside at the live streamed event ‘Play Your Part’. This fundraiser provided support to the Hemkunt Foundation which is working relentlessly to help fight the pandemic in India.
6 DBN GOGO
As amapiano has spread from South Africa into arguably the hottest sound in global dance music in 2021, DBN GOGO has risen up as one the its best-loved talents with her captivating command of the decks. Now an icon in her homeland, recently appearing on the cover of Glamour’s South African edition, DBN GOGO’s global popularity has also soared through 2021. She’s thrown it down at amapiano-focused festivals from Guateng to Ghana, as well as gigging all around Africa in countries such as DRC, Namibia, Kenya and a party in Zimbabwe where free COVID vaccinations were administered to guests — very responsible. Major shows at ADE, around the UK, and starring in a Spotify billboard in New York City’s Time Square have capped off an almighty year.
7 DJ SWISHA
There was a whole lot of pent-up energy to release on dancefloors upon their reopening in 2021, and DJ Swisha proved the perfect person to direct it into uninhibited movement. The Juke Bounce Werk member bounced around the US turning dancefloors upside down with his high-energy mix of predominantly East Coast and Midwest club music, including a playing to a 1,000-strong crowd at New York’s Sustain-Release alongside partner in pace Kush Jones. The number of his own productions and edits featured in his sets mean the Swisha experience is unlike any other DJ.
Illusionize has been the leading figure taking the big room sound of desande from rural raves in the farming region of Central-West Brazil to a mainstream phenomenon across the nation. Over 2021 he’s travelled up and down the nation performing to raptorous crowds in cities spanning Goiânia, Brasília, Imperatriz, São Paulo, Sinop, Cuiabá and beyond, as well as putting out the most complete showcase of the grooving bassline and hypnotical vocal-led sound with his fourth album ‘Illusionize's Universe’. He was also booked to play at Só Track Boa in Washington, D.C. alongside Brazilian sensation Vintage Culture who stands as one of the most popular DJs in the US. That pathway is opening up for Illusionize.
9 India Jordan
From releasing ‘Watch Out!’ through Ninja Tune to curating their first headline show at Werkhaus, this has been a huge year for rising star India Jordan. They’ve played some landmark summer festivals including Field Day and Lost Village, and landed a residency at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, playing several shows and Homobloc festival. India’s also had some stellar releases, including their most recent track ‘All About Love’ made with friend Finn. This year also saw the Doncaster-hailing DJ take on an Essential Mix and BBC Radio 1 residency, always making sure to platform trans and non-binary artists on their show. India Jordan is a name going down in dance music history and 2021 was only the beginning for them.
Kessler first came to our attention in 2019 when he won the DJ Academy competition we ran with Coors, earning a set in The Lab LDN. He’s kicked on as a breakout star of nu-skool jungle, electro and breaks in 2021, releasing multiple rave-ready EPs and playing ferocious sets at AVA Festival, Motion Bristol, SHERELLE’s FABRICLIVE launch party, and more. Born in Belfast and now based in Rotterdam, he’s also been making moves across Europe, including a set for HÖR Berlin and debut in Dublin. Other big moments include a Feel My Bicep mixtape, supporting Prospa at a sold out Village Underground, and appearing on Jaguar’s BBC Radio 1 show.
11 Kush Jones
Providing a source of both solace and exhilaration with his The Lot Radio mixes, Kush Jones got many of us through this year. Always high-energy, always filled-to-the-brim with unexpected twists and turns, his selections have heralded an exciting shift in the NYC club scene, where he’s caused a ruckus this year across spots like Nowadays, Mood Ring and Bossa Nova. Pulsating between drum ’n’ bass, Baltimore club, jungle and some top-tier, delectable footwork records, the Bronx native uses tempo to his advantage, toying with his audiences, earning him bookings across the US and in Antigua this year. His releases have been just as turbulent, with the ‘Strictly 4 My CDJZ’ series becoming one to watch come Bandcamp Friday. Always highlighting the incredible musical contribution of Black genres, Kush is a force to be reckoned with.
Can you breakthrough as a DJ without playing gigs? This year Logic1000 proved that you can. While taking downtime from touring due to the pandemic then pregnancy, Logic1000’s mixes ruled 2021 and won her a new legion of adoring fans. In February her appearance on our cover was accompanied by an uplifting mix of almost entirely unreleased music. The following month she helmed an instalment of BBC Radio 1’s legendary Essential Mix, before making a number of appearances on the station through the year. Mixes also arrived via platforms like RA and Paper, always showing the Sydney-born, Berlin-based DJ’s ability to whip up a party vibe via house, techno, garage, pop and more. Her production skills have also sharpened, with the likes of Four Tet, Annie Mac, and DJ Python playing her tracks. 2022’s dancefoors await.
13 Nikki Nair
2021 has seen Tennessee-rasied, Atlanta-based Nikki Nair get the recognition he deserves. This versatile DJ and producer has continued to challenge norms, as proven by shapeshifting releases ‘Yoland and his Tortoise’ and ‘Shufflin’, and shown he can get a crowd moving with sets at New York’s Elsewhere and his UK tour which included a whopping three-hour b2b set with Chloé Robinson, Thys and DJ ADHD at fabric. Nikki also took part in Daytimers’ fundraiser to raise funds for farmers in India and consistently shows his wide range of skills in the sets he delivers.
14 OK Williams
The key reason why an OK Williams set is so enjoyable is the fact she’s a classic DJ; bouncing off the crowd, the front row at her shows are full of screwed up faces hanging on her every movement. Holding an ace-hand of skills, Williams can easily move between modern club cuts, dreamy techno, and vinyl sets that leave envy in the hearts of even the most devoted of diggers - all in that kind of natural fashion that makes it look so so easy. The NTS resident has flexed her expert selections all over Europe since nightlife reopened including Panorama Bar, The Cause, Maiden Voyage, Horst, and more.
Despite what ‘90s raver internet comments would have you believe about kids these days not knowing good music, Prospa are bringing the sounds of breakbeat and synth-fuelled euphoria to a new generation of dancers. 2021 was a big year for the duo. In summer as festival season eventually got underway, they had a full circle moment playing at Leeds Festival, where they first shared their love of dance music to each other and decided to start the Prospa project. Other standout moments include closing out a rammed tent at Field Day and selling out a headline show at Village Underground, as well a jaunt to the US that saw them whip up crowds in Miami, LA and Chicago. Their position as sought after DJs on the circuit is established. And with wheels in motion for the launch of a live show next year, they look set to break through as a live act next.
Syreeta had been steadily bubbling up as an underground favourite with sets around the UK and Europe for a couple of years while working a day job as a truck driver, before deciding to step out full-time with music in early 2020. Not the best timing with the industry shutting down soon after, but her talent and dedication has seen her quickly rise up to the biggest stages upon clubbing’s return in 2021. She’s played alongside Carl Cox in Liverpool, Patrick Topping in Mexico, Jamie Jones in London, Seth Troxler in Amsterdam, Solardo in Manchester and plenty more. Her track selection drawing from the energetic house and groove-led techno also goes down a storm in the more intimate dancefloors she’s played to around the UK, including in her role as a resident for queer collective HE.SHE.THEY.
17 Tim Reaper
Working as a web developer last year, jungle aficionado Tim Reaper has broken through as one of the best new names in the high-octane end of the dance music spectrum through 2021. The DJ and producer’s raucous sets merge classic ‘90s jungle and hardcore with the cream of the new generation of torchbearers for the sound, for whom his label Future Retro has become a hub. A slew of releases across labels like Lobster Theremin, Circadian Rhythms and a collab outing with Special Request on Hooversound have put the cherry on a standout year.
TSHA has grown into a dance music sensation through 2021. She starred on the Mixmag cover then played the year’s most popular set in The Lab LDN, which stands at more than 350,000 views and counting on YouTube, and also appeared on billboards around the globe as part of the Spotify Equal celebration of International Women’s Day. Her tour schedule has taken off, with crowds from Ibiza to Arizona rushing to see her timeless mix of classic and contemporary house. Her third EP ‘OnlyL’ on Ninja Tune also garnered millions of streams and a remix from Detroit legends Floorplan.
[Photo: Dan Medhurst]
You’ve been living under a rock this year if you haven’t managed to encounter Newark-born icon UNiiQU3. While others have had their focus firmly on rebuilding the momentum they had before the pandemic, UNiiQU3 has hit new heights - with features on fashion labels, billboards in Times Square, and headline slots at Unsound, Miami’s Art Basel, and Nowadays. UNiiQU3’s penchant for both understanding and being able to craft absolute bops is perhaps the biggest feather in her cap; with her ‘Heartbeats’ EP tearing down the preconception that Jersey club music has to consist of edits, samples, and rough cuts - instead, producing a complex, and all-encompassing narrative around heartbreak.
After a chance meeting with New Jersey house legend Kerri Chandler, who played the then-teenager’s tracks on their first encounter, Wheats was signed to Kerri’s own MadTech label in 2017 and has put out a stream of heaters via the likes of Hottrax, Kaluki, Circus and Solid Grooves since then. In 2021 Wheats has proven faith from idols Jamie Jones, Kerri Chandler, Michael Bibi and Marco Carola is well placed, gigging all around the UK and US with a foray into Europe, while his productions consistently climb the Beatport Top 100.
21 Yung Singh
Yung Singh’s name has deservedly been everywhere in 2021. His fast-paced year has included a viral Boiler Room set, making a documentary alongside Ministry of Sound, several sell-out shows, and being nothing less than a great friend and example to others in the dance music community. He opened the main stage at Field Day festival, played iconic sets at Dialled In and Boiler Room festival, and had a fantastic turnout at the RA x The Right to Dance (War Child) x Choose Love: Afghanistan Fundraiser. His documentary about the history of Punjabi Garage was highly commended and he has received high praise from some veterans in the British South Asian music scene including Bobby Friction.